Archive for the 'Descriptions of Teaching – Learning – and Law Practice' Category

Jun 04 2009

Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School—Part III

1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School This is the third and final installment of guest posts derived from my recent book: 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (Thomson West 2009). Part I addressed psychological distress in law students. Part II explored the perilous second semester. This post discusses academic research that provides answers to a hodgepodge of important/interesting questions about legal education and success in law school.

III. Surprising Empirical Answers to Law School Questions You May have Wondered About

Scores of studies have been conducted about law students, legal education, and teaching and learning in general, yet this research data is often overlooked in giving advice to law students.

Did you know that the LSAT is not nearly as strong of a success predictor as most people assume? That students who sit in the front of classrooms get higher grades than those who sit in back? That women participate in law school class discussion at lower rates than men? That, contrary to student belief, the brain cannot multitask in class without one of the tasks suffering? That the conventional wisdom to not change initial answers to multiple-choice questions is completely backwards? Read on. (As with my other posts, I’ve omitted the citations, but can provide them on request.)

LSAT Correlation to First-Year Grades. Most law school applicants and students are aware that the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is the most heavily weighted factor influencing law school admissions. I’ve served on admissions committees at three different law schools. At each school, I’ve protested while seeing students with undergraduate GPAs barely above a 2.0 get admitted because of a good LSAT score, while students who have proved themselves through four years of college with outstanding GPAs get rejected because of average LSAT scores.

Validity studies do show a positive correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades, but the correlation is not nearly as strong as most law students believe. Correlation is measured by a coefficient for which 1.00 represents a perfect correlation and zero shows no correlation beyond one attributable to random chance. In 2005, the Law School Admission Council, the good folks that administer the LSAT, conducted a validity study using data from 181 law schools.

The median correlation between LSAT scores and first-year grades was only .34. The correlation varied wildly among schools, from a high of .56 (reasonably strong correlation) to a low of .04 (virtually no correlation). The correlation was higher when LSAT scores were considered together with undergraduate GPAs, ranging from .24 to .65, with a median correlation of .46.

So take heart. While the LSAT does measure several important abilities―primarily the abilities to engage and manage complex text―your LSAT score does not predetermine your fate. Like all law profs, I’ve seen students with low LSAT scores excel and students with chart-topping scores flunk out.

Seat Location as Tied to Academic Performance. I always encourage law students to sit in the front of the classroom, convinced it enhances their law school experience. Now I have some research to back up my recommendation. Non-law school educators have conducted a variety of studies on the relationship of seat choice to student personality type and academic performance. They support one proposition quite clearly: students who choose to sit in the front of the room are disproportionately better students. They have higher GPAs, participate more frequently in class, and receive better grades in the course. One study, for example, found that students sitting in the front received higher percentages of As and students sitting in the back received higher percentages of Ds and Fs.

Several studies have linked this better performance to personality differences between students who choose to sit in front and those who choose the back. In other words, with regard to the cause and effect relationship between seat selection and academic performance, research suggests that students who sit in front by choice do better because better students choose to sit in front. But at least one study suggests that sitting in the front is actually causally related to better academic performance.

Don’t be a backburner! Grab a seat near the front in all your classes.

Class Participation Rates between Men and Women. Unsurprising to anyone who has been involved in legal education for any period of time, several surveys show that female students voluntarily participate much less frequently in law school classes than male students (although my Torts class this past year was a notable exception). For example, a survey of students at the University of California at Berkeley found that a majority of women, and also persons of color, never asked questions or otherwise voluntarily participated in class, while almost two-thirds of white male students reported doing both. The survey is dated, but the results are consistent with current experience.

Reasons offered by scholars as to why the Socratic method negatively impacts women include increased feelings of alienation and fear, the adversarial and competitive nature of the method, sexist conduct by certain male professors, an interest in protecting the sanctity and integrity of one’s beliefs, less willingness to engage in grandstanding, a lower interest in dominating class discussion, and—I love this one because it’s so true—better recognition by women than men of the limits of one’s knowledge. In short, male students, as a group, are more willing to engage in the adversarial, competitive “sport” of the Socratic method than women. As noted, the same surveys show that minority students also participate at lower rates.

This data is important because class participation carries several benefits with it, some tangible and some intangible: (1) Active student participation in class discussions adds to the energy level and sense of community in the classroom, making for a more lively and memorable experience for everyone; (2) You will better remember the classes in which you participate and feel more satisfaction about your law school experience; (3) Participating sharpens your oral communication and group speaking skills, essential abilities for all lawyers; (4) Your professors want to get to know you, but with so many students, we can=t realistically accomplish that unless you speak up from time to time; (5) It is an established fact of legal education that if you volunteer even once in a while, you will get called on less often when you are not volunteering; (6) Finally, many professors raise grades for class participation.

Multitasking with Computers in Class. The use of computers in law school classrooms is quite controversial among law professors, with some professors banning them and others threatening to do so. Profs Kibosh Students’ Laptops blared a headline in the American Bar Association Journal. The Washington Post published an op-ed piece by a Georgetown law professor advocating a classroom computer ban. Every time I think the great law school computer debate is about to die down, some prof will stir it up again on the lawprof listserv, igniting yet another torrent of email on the subject.

A primary concern professors have with computers is that too many students check out of the class discussion to web-browse, check email, send instant messages, etc. Gen Y and Millennial students respond that they are so skilled at multitasking that they really can learn law and check sports scores at the same time.

Is it true? Research suggests the answer is “no,” or at least “not as effectively.” Studies regarding the ability of the brain to engage in simultaneous tasks show “almost without exception” that the performance of one or both tasks directly suffers.

In one study, researchers tracked the wireless computer activity of students during class. Not surprisingly, the study showed students used their computers for a wide range of functions unrelated to the class, such as email and web-browsing. The researchers then divided a class into two groups. Prior to a lecture, one group was told to use their computers as usual, while the other was asked to close their computers. Afterwards, the researchers gave the students a surprise test. The students who used their laptops during the lecture performed significantly poorer on the test. Two months later the researchers replicated the test by switching the two groups of students and got the same results.

Another study suggested that even if multitasking does not necessarily decrease the overall ability to learn, it negatively affects the kind of learning used to acquire new concepts and information and to engage in deep analysis—learning abilities that are critical to law students. Researchers did MRI brain imaging of fourteen twenty-somethings engaged in dual-task learning. The brain imaging showed that multitaskers engaged in “habit learning” rather than “declarative learning.” Habit learning relies on a portion of the brain used for repetitive skills, whereas declarative learning involves a portion of the brain used for storing and recalling information. Basically, the researchers concluded that even though people can learn while multitasking, they can’t learn the material as well or be able to adapt it to changing conditions.

Even if you’re adept at multitasking, the research suggests you can’t do all the tasks well because of the brain’s limited processing ability. So if your professor is defining the Rule Against Perpetuities at the same moment you’re updating your Facebook status, something has to give.

Changing Answers on Multiple-Choice Questions. Ever since I was in elementary school, teachers have admonished not to change initial answers to multiple-choice questions because it’s more likely you will change an answer from right to wrong than from wrong to right. Well, guess what? The advice is completely backwards. Study after study, some of them dating back to the 1920s, consistently show that changing multiple-choice answers is more likely to increase—not decrease—test scores. An example: a study of upper-level accounting students showed that 95 percent of the students changed answers on their multiple-choice examinations (changing a total of 5.6 percent of the answers). Fifty-six percent of the answers were changed from wrong to right, while only 21 percent were changed from right to wrong. The remaining 23 percent were changed from one wrong answer to another wrong answer. These results are consistent with other studies.

Conclusion. Thanks to the CELL blog editors for giving me the opportunity to share some of the things I learned in writing my book about first-year law school success.  It’s been fun!

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Mar 31 2009

Empty Threats (Or: Introducing the “Entitlement Generation [of Lawyers]”)

A long while ago I wrote a blog entitled “A Culture of Complaining or Why Law Students Are Whiny Brats.” I argued that changing rules, deadlines, practices, and policies because students incapable of following them whine to you achieves naught but the following:

>>It sets everyone up to fail: the students will flop in the real world when the staggering realization of deadlines, fiduciary duties, inflexible senior partners, and even less flexible judges sets in; and the school will fail when the legal community realizes its churning out whiny toddlers instead of polished, professional lawyers.<<

Yet here we are a year after that brilliant missive, and again we find that rules are nothing but empty threats. Pandora’s Box is open once more, and this time, the issue revolves around the oft-doubted legitimacy of the school’s electoral process.

The gist of the story is this: during the recent elections, certain deadlines were made abundantly clear. They were stated in person to all candidates, as well as put in writing. This writing was signed by all candidates. One of the rules very clearly stated that failure to meet any deadline would result in removal from the ballot.

In an effort to jumpstart the process, a number of enterprising spirits decided to sign the Campaign Compliance Certification – a paper saying one had abided by all specific rules as set forth by the Elections Committee – and hand it in right there and then. Yes, this begs the obvious question: how can you affirm that you followed all the rules of a campaign that hasn’t yet started? On the basis of this seemingly obvious discrepancy, the forms of these enterprising spirits were refused. In constitutional terms, I believe we’d say the time for submission was “not yet ripe.”

Fast forward to harvesting time and the now-ripe (and oh-so-juicy!) forms are due by 5:00pm in much the same way complaints would be due at 5:00pm the day the statute of limitations runs. And in much the same way the courthouse would, the Elections Committee refused to accept said forms after 5:00pm, although those who sought extensions in advance of the deadline were granted them. As per the clearly stated, written, and signed rules, the names of those in total violation of this fairly simplistic deadline were removed from the ballot. The removal was by unanimous vote of the Elections Committee. And seeing as how these forms still had not appeared by 10:30pm, no one really felt too bad about it. (There were also issues regarding Facebook campaigning I decline to expound upon here; but suffice it to say the issues were resolved, again, by unanimous vote of the 5-person Elections Committee.)

The real-life grown-up lawyers with whom I have shared this portion of the story assume this is where the story ends. Not many folks with whom I have spoken (a small sample of humanity, I admit) understand that there would or should be more to the story than knowing a deadline, signing onto a deadline, missing a deadline, and dealing with the repercussions.

But ours is a world where there appears to be no real punishment for breaking clearly stated rules – rules from cheating to wearing business casual to “court.” And in such a world, all you have to do to get around any rule you like is put on your very best pouty face and whine that it’s just not fair.

And thus it came to pass that an emergency meeting was called; a debatable constitutional discrepancy was found (ah, loopholes); the once independent authority of a unanimous committee was made dependent; and those upon whom it was made dependent cast a wholly democratic and procedurally fair vote entirely consistent with the re-interpreted constitution and with an implied school policy that rules don’t matter.

All names removed from the ballot were replaced.

All names once on the Elections Committee removed themselves in protest.

And a name once on the student government roster removed itself as well: mine.

It’s as infuriating as it is disappointing that these precedents are so casually set. Why don’t rules matter to those who aspire to fiduciary positions? Why aren’t deadlines important to those for whom someone else’s life and property will depend on their ability to meet them? Why is personal responsibility a concept looked on with scorn and disfavor? Why are consequences run from rather than learned from? And where is the integrity to stand up and say, “You know what? I knew it; I did it; and I don’t deserve an exemption”?

I shudder to think that this is the legacy we’re leaving behind. I shudder to think that this attitude might actually follow someone into the legal profession, and what the consequences of that might be for some unsuspecting client. Will missing a deadline only become significant when someone’s claim for relief is denied because of it? When someone’s habeas petition is denied? When you’re sued – is that when it will be significant??

When Pandora’s Box is finally closed on this issue – a process being frantically attempted by those concerned over losing face – I very much doubt much will have changed. Attitudes are slow like that. But I sincerely hope that at least a few members of this, the “Entitlement Generation,” will have received a wake-up call. I hope a person or two yet to come of age will remember that rules mattered once, even if only for an hour or two, and that someday, they might not have the advantage of getting them overturned. Someday, someone with more clout than any of us might put his/her foot down, and a small whiny voice might be left squeaking from beneath it. Honestly, I hope it never comes to that. But if it does, I rest content knowing both that I tried to prevent it, and that I have absolutely no duty whatsoever to rescue them from it.

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Mar 10 2009

Three Things I Learned Writing a Book about How to Succeed in Law School—Part II

1L of a RideThis is Part II of my guest posting derived from my recent book: 1L of a Ride: A Well-Traveled Professor’s Roadmap to Success in the First Year of Law School (Thomson West 2009). Part I related to psychological distress in law students. This installment explores “The Perilous Second Semester”

II. The Perilous Second Semester

In a way I kind of feel as though the first semester was like me going into a burning building to pull somebody out of the fire. I wanted to go and was happy to do it, and after coming out I was glad I did it, but felt like I wouldn’t want to do it again. Now for the next semester I feel as though there is somebody else in the house and the fire has gotten worse. I groan and make myself go in again, and part of me wants to go back in, but in the back of my mind I’m aware of how tired I am from the first time and am a little more worried about whether or not I will get out of the building alive this time.

1L’s comment about starting the second semester

I’ve been teaching law for what seems like an eternity and, yet, until writing 1L of a Ride, had never given serious consideration to the second semester of law school as an entity of independent significance. Studying and surveying students at the University of Memphis brought home the realization that the second semester is, in fact, one of the most daunting challenges in all of law school, as reflected by the quotation above. How students respond to it is a crucial determinant of their long-term success. This is the juncture where students seem to make judgments and decisions about themselves and law school that play a large role in determining and defining their ultimate “law school selves.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve polled my Torts students at the start of the second semester with this online question:

What is your dominant feeling as you begin the second semester?

  • Excited
  • Tired
  • Bored
  • Depressed
  • Rested and ready

The most common answers by far are “Tired” and “Depressed.” Recently, I probed more deeply into student sentiments about starting the second semester. Just before classes began, I asked a section of Torts students to comment on, among other things, their state of mind and motivation and happiness levels in comparison to the first semester. The responses showed that, while some students feel better off in the second semester, a significant number are less happy and less motivated. I received several responses resembling this one:

  1. State of mind: Unhappy and sullen.
  2. Motivation level: Much less motivated—I’m already convinced I failed out of school, so the last thing I want to do is continue to work hard.
  3. Happiness level: The same amount of light unhappiness, but it’s for different reasons. In the beginning it was fear and anxiety. Now I just feel defeated.

At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that many law students find the second semester more difficult and dispiriting than the first. With three months experience under their belts, one might think the second semester would be a “been there, done that” relative breeze. Students know how to read and brief cases, outline courses, and take law school exams. They’ve made good friends, the physical surroundings are familiar, and they’ve discovered that the Socratic method and the law profs who administer it aren’t as bad as the horror stories they heard before starting law school.

The Pitfalls of the Second Semester

While the above are all real advantages, the second semester carries with it a whole new set of challenges. I list and briefly describe them below. The book expands on them and offers ways for students to address them.

Ignorance can be bliss. The uncertainty of the first semester is a substantial cause of strain on 1Ls, but unveiling law school can be problematic as well. In the second semester uncertainty about law school is replaced by a disquieting certainty that it can be an exhausting, onerous drudge. As one student put it: “Now I know exactly what I’m walking into. First semester there was a bit of excited anticipation, etc. Now I know I’ll be in the library for the next four months.”

The thrill is gone. Students arrive at law school brimming with anticipation and energy. Seeing and feeling it is one of the great joys of being a 1L law teacher. But like romances that lose their dizzying effects when the newness wears off, law school becomes more of a chore than an adventure after the ebullience of the first semester subsides. In the words of bluesman B.B. King, “the thrill is gone.”

The double-edged grade blade. Depending how they turn out, first-semester grades can be either a major boost or impediment to starting the second semester. Most students begin law school with at least some hope of finishing near the top of their class, but, of course, the mathematical reality is that only 10 percent of students finish in the top 10 percent. Ninety percent don’t.

For those who performed well, first-semester grades can infuse new energy and confidence. But for every student whose confidence gets a jolt from grades, three or four others get their egos electrocuted. High expectations, previous educational success, mandatory grading curves, and an abundance of talented people create a perfect storm for dashed hopes. The storm is unleashed the moment first-semester grades are released.

Getting back in the groove. After going and going like the battery bunny on meth for three months, students finish that last exam of the first semester and everything suddenly stops. Many students don’t know what to do with themselves during the holiday break. They’re not used to having so much free time. Many report that they can’t enjoy the break at the beginning because they feel guilty about not studying. Then, just about the time they readjust to an unstructured lifestyle full of leisure time, it’s time to get back to the grind. One of my survey questions was: “The hardest thing for me about starting the second semester is [fill in the blank].” Getting back into the groove was the most common answer.

Increased competitiveness. To the extent competitiveness is a problem in law school, students tell me it gets worse in the second semester. I think much of it relates back to that first set of grades having been issued. In the first semester, everyone is in the same boat, struggling to stay afloat. The shared experience creates a communal bond. But once first semester grades have been issued, there seems to be a feeling—both among some high achievers and some lower-than-hoped-for achievers—of “Hey, you’re in that boat and I’m in this boat.”

Enhanced workload. Depending on the law school, a major cause of second-semester stress is an increased workload. Some schools (like the University of Memphis) add an extra course in the second semester. Some professors move at a quicker pace in the second semester, which means more material and longer reading assignments. And then, of course, there’s the appellate brief and oral argument, one of the heaviest burdens of 1L existence.

Second-guessing life as a lawyer. One obstacle some students face is larger than the second semester and even law school itself. It’s the global issue of wondering whether one made the right choice in sacrificing everything (e.g., time, effort, financial resources, relationships, other opportunities) to come to law school. Should I be here? Is this what I really want to do with my life? In the first semester, students are struggling just to keep up, giving them little time to ponder the long-term wisdom of their career choice. In the second semester, nagging doubts kept at bay in the first semester start to creep into consciousness.

Financial issues. Many students get panicky, or at least very concerned, about financial issues in the second semester. Students often arrive having saved enough money to get them through the first semester only to realize they need to start borrowing more heavily starting in the second semester. Debt load, in turn, takes on greater prominence as a source of anxiety as students begin to realize that the lawyer salary data they read about prior to attending law school—and which, unfortunately, draws many students to law school—is skewed. Those $160,000 starting salaries and lavish annual bonuses splashed across the media go to only a small percentage of top-performing students who land jobs at large law firms in big cities. To make matters worse, these days students are barraged with reports about many of those highly paid associates being laid off as a consequence of the weak economy.

Summer job anxiety. Students feel tremendous pressure in the second semester to land summer clerkships at law firms. In many cases, this pressure arises from pressing financial needs, but it also stems from an expectation that getting summer legal jobs is something 1Ls are supposed to do. Depending on the city and job market, obtaining a summer association position at a law firm may be in unconquerable obstacle for a 1L, especially for those who aren’t in the top of their class.

Becoming aware of these second-semester issues has made me be a better advisor/mentor to my students. I never used to mention any of these issues to my students. Most of them never even occurred to me. Now I talk about each of them at some point during the second semester. The discussions don’t eliminate my students’ stress or worries, but they do seem to help relieve them.

For further discussions about the book click here.

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Dec 03 2008

Dress Code

When I was in law school, there was no dress code per se for students.  We all dressed casually, just as we did in undergrad.   That appears to have continued to the present time, based upon my personal observations during visits to Elon and other law schools.  Generally, the only time a law student would be seen in business attire was during interview season.

Not so in law practice.  When I began practicing in the 70’s in North Carolina, business attire (i.e., suit and tie for men, parallel attire for women) was the rule with few if any exceptions.  Within the past several years, however, law practice attire in North Carolina appears to have morphed into something different.  I am not sure exactly what — just that it is different.

Standards now vary from firm to firm.  True, some law firms still require formal business dress.  But, at other firms, one might find casual days, casual seasons, and even casual-all-the-time approaches, depending to a large measure on the image a particular firm wants to project (i.e formal, relaxed, sophisticated or whatever).  Some firms simply let each attorney decide individually what he/she wants to wear, within an acceptable range of course, or let the attire de jure be determined by whether a client meeting or court appearance is scheduled for that particular day.   This potpourri of standards does not seem to have any nexus to the size of the firm, the region (mountains, piedmont  or coast), or whether the firm has multi-city presence or a singe-office location. Continue Reading »

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May 14 2008

A Contracts Hypothetical (Or: That Sound You Hear is the Sound of My Falling GPA….Wait for it……Wait for it…….SPLAT!)

The Problem:

Two-hundred students sign duly executed contracts with Spiral University of Rhetorical and Rancorous Engagement in All [but the] Law (hereinafter “SURREAL”) whereby they agree to pay (or finance) an astronomical sum of money at 6% interest over 3 years in exchange for a legal education, parceled out in 2-3 hour courses taught by a variety excellent professors with excellent pedigrees, excellent professors without excellent pedigrees, and professors with only excellent pedigrees. SURREAL assures these students, in writing, they will be well-prepared to pass their courses and the Bar exam throughout these 3 years, thus constituting the required consideration for its part of this contract.

Of the 200 students having signed contracts with SURREAL, 35 choose an elective course called “Procedural Adventures In Neverland” (hereinafter “PAIN”) and study diligently, often compiling 55-page outlines complete with tables of contents; translating hundreds of pages of impenetrable Supreme Court Sanskrit; creating PowerPoint slides to rival the gods; and actually paying more attention to the professor (who falls into Category Three Pedigree, above) than to the most current Scrabble game. These 35 students were told the course would be graded on the basis of a single, final exam. This exam was advertised in writing in the syllabus, but only after two weeks of the course had already gone by. Still, the 35 students remained in PAIN, prepared to take this final examination, having studied PAIN diligently and worked hard to understand the basics, as-taught by the professor (who was, they were told, an expert in PAIN). Prior to the exam, the professor assured the students the exam would cover topics taught throughout PAIN, and the students prepared to be tested in PAIN accordingly.

Upon receiving the exam, the 35 students of PAIN realized they had either been misled or that they had received the wrong examination. None of the 35 students recognized the call of the question, nor did any of them have any idea what the question was asking them to do. None of the words used in the calls of any of the questions bore any relationship to PAIN although, ironically, the questions did manage to illicit a lot of agony, despair, hopelessness, panic, and even prayer (I’m told Jesus just laughed and mumbled something about having had nothing to do with that convoluted pile of _____). None of the outlines of any of the students were of any use to any of them, nor was the textbook, nor any of the cases, nor any of the facts in the 2-page fact pattern preceding the question itself. As one student aptly analogized afterward, “It was like being trained to be a mechanic – learning how to fix the problems of a car that was already right in front of you based on general principles of car maintenance – and then showing up for your mechanic’s exam and being asked not to fix a car, but rather to design and build one from scratch. Obviously, the mechanic would fail, and obviously, so did all of us.”

Your Task:

You are a law student (or law professor) having already taken Contracts I and II. Thirty-five students come to you telling you this tale of SURREAL PAIN, asking for your advice. Prepare a blog comment in the space provided below outlining the following:

(1) whether SURREAL is liable for an affirmative misrepresentation of PAIN;

(2) whether the SURREAL professor of the course is liable for an affirmative misrepresentation of PAIN;

(3) whether the SURREAL contract was unconscionable on the basis of PAIN;

(4) whether the delay in receiving the PAIN syllabus constitutes a breach of the SURREAL contract, or any part thereof, or whether the students remaining in the course after having received said syllabus 2 weeks late constitutes implied acceptance of PAIN’s terms on their parts;

(5) whether, under the UCC, receipt of a final exam bearing no resemblance to the one for which the students contracted constituted a breach of the contract without a corresponding letter of accommodation, or whether the taking of the exam in spite of this fact constituted the acceptance of non-conforming goods via counter-offer by the students

As you write, bear in mind to following quote by someone who, granted, did not go to an American Ivy League school, but did go to Oxford, which is way better than American Ivy League schools anyway. In considering this quote, please discuss its relationship to the Separation of Powers Doctrine and to the Doctrine of SURREAL PAIN.

“Pain is an event. It happens to you, and you deal with it whatever way you can.”

– Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller

Yes, indeed, Hugh. Yes, indeed. PAIN is, indeed, an event, and you deal with it whatever way you can. Like, for instance, by blogging… or by failing miserably.

…………SPLAT!

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May 12 2008

I Never Much Liked Standup Comedy (Or: Save It for the Stage, Gallagher!)(Or: No Really – Sometimes We Really Do Have To Teach Ourselves the Course)

I’ve come to realize a lot of professors (maybe all of them?) seriously chafe at the phrase, “I had to teach this course to myself.” And I can understand why. Here you have a professor who has studied longer and who has earned more degrees than the students – who has prepared (I use that term rather loosely in some cases) a syllabus and chosen a book – and who has come to class day in, day out, and done their best (I hesitate to use this term at all in some other cases) to teach you something. And what do they get? Told by their students that they really didn’t teach at all.

In all honesty, a lot of time that phrase is uttered in empty frustration, and beneath it lies not the fact that the professor didn’t teach, but only the fact that the students feel they didn’t learn very much, which may very well be due to a number of variables too numerous to discuss. And a lot of times, what students are griping about is little more than the unthinkable fact that they had to work really hard to understand a concept that was never easy for anyone to explain/understand, and their professor hasn’t made it the essence of clarity either.

But then there are those classes you really do teach to yourself, and I have been privileged enough to have taken such a course.

Let me say from the outset: I gave up on this course early on (about week 5), attended only because each attendance was mandatory in the syllabus, and used my class time to vastly improve my Scrabble game. I admit this straight out, right here, from the beginning.

But why did I – a pretty darn studious nerd by most standards – give up on a course so early and to such an extent? And where do I get off telling an expert in the given field that I had to teach the course to myself?

Well, to start with, I never much cared for standup comedy. I mean, I used to like watermelon-smashing Gallagher back in the day, but aside from him, standup comics never really held my attention very well. When the standup comic is my law professor, the result is just disastrous. Don’t get me wrong: I think my previous blogs have made my preference for comedic relief pretty evident, and I love when a professor is a funny professor as well as a good one. But when the professor is only funny…

The first few days of this particular course were darn funny. We liked this professor. This professor amused us. But then we all started to realize we were really only being amused, and this course was a little lacking in substance. Actually…no…it was a LOT lacking in substance. And this book was a wretched plague upon humanity (I submit that no book should be 1/3 text, 1/3 parenthetical phrases, and 1/3 footnotes. NO BOOK. EVER. It’s evil and vile and wrong.) so no help there. And… wait… did the professor just start blatantly substituting opinion for fact…? Oh my. I know that isn’t what the Court held… Maybe it’s what you think it should have held… But… Um… It didn’t. For the sake of my own GPA, I think this would be a good time to tune this one out.

Scrabble, anyone? Yes, indeed. And this time, I wasn’t playing against the slackers. Oh no! I was playing against the top brass, kids. The cream of the crop. The presidents, the editors, and the holders of really impressive GPAs. We had all given up.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and my proof that I really did have to teach this course to myself (and that I could, which amused me terrifically) came during the days leading up the exam. I was sent an outline by a student who had clearly done nothing but transcribe everything our amusing professor said. I read this outline to see if I had, in fact, missed anything important in those mandatory lost hours. Beneath the tears of laughter streaming down my face was the realization that this entire outline – a loose transcription of the entire course – was just pure gibberish. It made NO logical sense. Something to do with an eight-year old… everything is “clearly” this or that, except that it’s all about as clear as mud… oh, wait… now something to do with due process of law…grandmothers…hookers… were the grandmothers also the hookers…? I passed this outline around to my friends – also rather studious types – and watched as their eyes grew wide and they started doubling over in laughter (well, those of them that didn’t leap to their feet to find the poor person who was perhaps relying on these 30 pages of total bunk).

And then we all got to the tedious act of starting all over from scratch – the much-debated outline of one of my favorite profs in-hand of course (which saved my butt, thank you very much) – and teaching the course to ourselves. We went to Westlaw and printed the syllabi of every main case (a daunting list). We put them in binders. We read them start to finish. We made them into chronological lists to see patterns over time (our book liked to talk in chronology but have us read the cases from the middle outward in all directions). We printed law review articles covering the policies behind the more prominent cases. We debated the pros and cons. We made mock tests for each other based off other (reliable) outlines and supplements. We read other texts and mountains of cram books. And in four days, we taught ourselves the basics of the course. And I’m pretty sure my friends and I passed (perhaps only by the Grace of God, but we passed).

I’m told this sort of occurrence – standup comedy in lieu of teaching – happens as a result of knowing one’s subject so well, and having written so many books containing naught but your own opinion on the subject, that, when teaching, one forgets to mention the rule to which one’s opinion applies. One neglects to account for the fact that most students can’t really debate the subtleties of the policies behind a rule until they, you know, know the rule. And one perhaps forgets that one’s own opinion is not how it is, no matter how much that’s how one believes it should be.

So when your students tell you they had to teach a course to themselves, keep this little diatribe in mind. I’m sure the vast majority of you will immediately defer to my blog about whiny students, assured as you are that your teaching prowess is second-to-none and certainly a lot better than Gallagher standup. But if perchance you should have a doubt or two, here remains a little food for thought.

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Apr 25 2008

Exam Review Jeopardy

Today, I am offering a page from my teaching diary (for what it’s worth).

I conducted a review session today in anticipation of my final examination. I decided to conduct the review in the form of a jeopardy game. I divided the students into four groups. I gave the students the past exam question I wanted to use as the basis for the game one week ago, and I asked them all to write out their analyses of the hypo.

I then created PowerPoint slides in which I hyperlinked the points (I used points instead of dollar amounts) to slides with the answers for which the students had to provide questions. It did produce some very awkward and very long questions, “What is, on the one hand, . . ., but, on the other hand, . . .” The winning team was promised cookies.

Here’s what worked: The students were very engaged and very excited to participate, and they considered the material from a new perspective. The class went over by two or three minutes, and no one seemed to mind. The hypo was a very good one for teaching students many of the things I wanted them to learn from a practice exam review, and, as we went we discussed those meta-lessons.

Here’s what I will need to fix for next time: First, I made a few errors in my hyperlinks. Second, because everyone was providing the questions and was doing so orally and because I did not have slides that showed the answers, my students who learn by reading may not have followed the discussion as well as I would have liked, and, in fact, one student suggested that change to this exercise. Third, one team ended up far ahead of the others so that the final jeopardy was anti-climatic (that team bet zero because they were guaranteed to win with the number of points they already had).

~Mike

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Mar 01 2008

Ten Things I Learned Sitting on my Butt and Listening

Saturday, March 1, 2008, 04:57 PM –
Posted by Gerry Hess

I spent a good part of the last two days as a participant at a symposium. For four hours one day and two hours the next day, I sat in a chair listening and taking notes. ( Hmm, not unlike the way our students spend much of the law school days. ) The symposium was divided into 50 minute sessions – 30 minutes of presentation followed by 20 minutes of audience participation. A ten minute break followed each session. Although the symposium was focused on substantive law, here’s ten lessons I learned about teaching:

1. A presenter’s enthusiasm, passion, and humor go a long way.
2. Unless you have oratory skills akin to Martin Luther King, your 30 minute presentation must be supported by visuals.
3. PowerPoint can work as a visual, especially without animation, bells, and whistles.
4. A handout can work as a visual.
5. The most effective presentation was supported by PowerPoint and a handout.
6. Less is more – the least effective presentations covered the most content.
7. The most important times in the symposium are the breaks.
8. The second most important times in the symposium are audience participation.
9. It is a mistake for any presenter to exceed the presentation time by five minutes.
10. it is Narcissistic and disrespectful to exceed the presentation time by twenty minutes.

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